by Robert Munuku
When I turn on the television, I am not sure whether I am watching the news or a travesty of the same in the name of a glorified show of beautiful men and women dressed up in dashing tunics and layers of make-up smiling before our screens telling us what we should care about. I fear for journalism in this country, and flinch at the thought that the deterioration of one of society’s key institutions will be to our detriment.
Mainstream media in Kenya is far from politically neutral and this in itself is enough stir concern. A quick recap at the major mainstream media houses in our country: The Nation Media Group (which owns The Nation and NTV, Mediamax Limited (which owns K24), Royal Media Services (which owns Citizen TV and Radio, among other radio stations), the Standard Media Group (which owns The Standard and KTN), and Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). I am intrigued by the ownership of these media houses, their board constitutions and their implied affiliations.
The Nation Media Group (NMG) is owned by the Aga Khan Foundation, founded in 1959 by his Highness the Aga Khan. At face-value this seems okay, after all, the foundation is more or less an autonomous entity. But when we take a look at the board members of NMG we see some familiar faces; allow me to pick one – Professor Olive Mugenda. Prof. Mugenda served as the Vice Chancellor of Kenyatta University (a public university) and was later appointed by the current President, Uhuru Kenyatta, early this year to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). This may not mean anything and one could say she was vetted and therefore qualifies for the job. However it is often the case that such nominations are done based on trust and a history of loyalty.
The Kenya Television Network (KTN) was founded by Jared Kangwana, a close ally of retired President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi for years. This affiliation was accentuated in a land donnybrook four years ago where Kangwana stated that the former President had allocated the land to him. Going by the former President’s endorsement of our current President in 1997 as KANU’s (Kenya National Union party) presidential flag-bearer, it would not be a far-fetched assumption that KTN and its mother company, Standard Media Group, leans more towards government. The former Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) parastatal boss, Dr. Julius Kipng’etich, also sits as a board member of the Standard Media Group.
K24 TV is owned by the Kenyatta family to the best of the public’s knowledge; no need to say where their loyalties lie. The same goes for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) which is not only the pioneer media house in the country, but also a parastatal run by the government. We are left with one more mainstream media house to look to for authentic unbiased journalism – Royal Media Services or, if you prefer, Citizen TV.
In the 2013 general elections in Kenya, the owner of Royal Media Services, Samuel Kamau Macharia (popularly known S.K. Macharia), was seen standing next to the former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, in a press conference at which the election results were being contested. Moments after the famous press briefing, several articles arose from independent media houses claiming that he was in fact using his media house, Royal Media Services, to support the former Prime Minister’s election bid.
Fast-forward to 2018, Royal Media Services conducted what is arguably the largest poaching drive in the industry’s history, literally milking-dry all their competitors, especially KTN and NTV (Nation TV of Nation Media Group). Among those poached were KTN former Managing Editor, Joe Ageyo, whose new role is not clear yet given we have seen him intermittently reporting features for Citizen. Joe Ageyo was also one of the 2 journalists who moderated the 2017 Presidential Debate alongside the then Nation T.V. Managing Editor, Linus Kaikai. It is worth noting too that Asha Mwilu, an award-winning journalist who worked closely with Joe during his stint as Managing Editor at KTN, was poached together with him to join Royal Media Services. Another personality to note among the poached is Yvonne Okwara-Matole, from KTN. Like Joe Ageyo, she too was a moderator for the running-mates’ debate in the 2017 general elections.
Linus Kaikai, Larry Madowo and Ken Mijungu were summoned to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) headquarters for allegedly refusing to comply with a directive regarding the airing of the former Prime Minister’s ‘swearing-in’ ceremony. One month later, Larry Madowo resigned from his post at the Nation Media Group. Linus Kaikai, who was accosted with him, also resigned shortly after the summons to CID headquarters. He later moved to Royal Media Services.
It is said that “grand alliances between two great powers are generally the least effective.” Could this apply to the infamous ‘handshake’ between our President and former Prime Minister? Would it be so absurd to entertain the possibility that the shake-up in the media is connected to this?
When I turn on the news, all I see is tragedy; rape at Moi Girls Secondary School, the recent demolitions by NEMA, hordes of corruption cases from that of the National Youth Service (NYS) to the more recent of supposed misuse of office by the former governor of Nairobi. I know when a dog bites a man it is no news and ‘news’ would only constitute the opposite, but have we taken ‘bad news’ too far? Has our news been reduced to insensitive sensationalism of even the most tragic moments of our times? Do journalists care about telling the truth – about sharing honest stories from the same masses that the media fraternity serves, or is winning an award for a story more important for them?
Has mainstream journalism in our country been co-opted by the political elite?
Robert Mũnũku is a visual artist, writer & filmmaker based in Nairobi. Mũnũku is also the founder of Mau Mau Collective which is an organization that seeks to create a strong network of independent visual artists, filmmakers & performing artists on the continent. Follow him on Twitter @robertmunuku
I’d like to begin where we all are. Consider the images of Mark Zuckerberg at Mama Oliech restaurant and how they have travelled. Think of this one in particular. I won’t focus on how his whiteness permeated through how we treated him. We have, for a long time, held white people who do something “African” as gods. And so it makes sense that we would hold Zuckerberg in such esteem.
As Bisi Alimi wrote:
“… white has been set as the standard of how the world works. When a white person speaks any African language and posts videos online, that video will go viral among Africans. Even with the worse attempt at speaking language with horrible accents. But I remember how many times black people have been called out by white people for their accent, or their poor attempt at speaking white people’s language.”
It also makes sense that we would use this image to shame women. The number of tweets and Facebook posts that came out demeaning women because Zuckerberg ate a fish with his hands speak for themselves.
Instead, I’d like to think about what Kenya would do to a Mark Zuckerberg. And, what this curiosity would actually mean to someone on his path. Not only would he have to come from a place of privilege – but he would also have to have a level of access. Access to people, access to resource and access to knowledge.
In order to do this, we would have to actually care about things like increased access to knowledge, resource and ourselves. This is not something that we have shown that we can do. A story done by Africa Uncensored (here) shows how primary schools across the country – with particular focus on Naka primary school in Nakuru – have had their land grabbed. Just last year, the students of Lang’ata primary were fighting the same battle. Earlier this year, high school students were burning down schools, yet we still don’t want to admit that there might be a serious problem in education in the country.
Even assuming that somehow our young eager mind would survive the rigor that is 844, there is no telling what would happen to them once they go out into the world. The Silicon Savannah is not for the fainthearted, as the founders of Angani could tell you. Writing the full story here, Brenda Wambui states:
“This is not to say that terrible things have not happened before in this community. They are commonplace, and people are usually afraid to speak up in fear of the consequences. In my research, I heard from sources who opted to remain anonymous about a senior official at a leading telco who participated in blatant fraud, before moving to yet another leading telco, seemingly without paying his dues. I was told about how a community space was practically snatched from its founder by someone he owed money in exchange for his debt, not knowing the creditor had an ace up his sleeve.”
In many ways, I’d like to be able to take race and other forms of privilege away from this situation. This is not to say that these things did not play a role in his “success” – they were definitely driving forces. Major ones, in fact. Which is to say, it is almost impossible to have a Zuckerberg without thinking of centralization of resources and how this centralization allowed him to be.
So what role does it play to look at the situation without considering privilege?
In order to do this I would like us to go back to the image.
In the image we have Zuckeberg, centre. On his right there is cabinet secretary Joe Mucheru. The people in the photo are smiling – or at least attempting to feign some form of happiness. There is pride in the eyes of the cabinet secretary – he is happy to be in this photo (through no fault of his own. I’d be happy to meet Mark myself). It is very clear that it is the Facebook founder who is at the centre of the gaze. He is the one that is to be looked at.
I’m wondering if the centering of the image would be the same if the person in question was a young Kenyan. If the person in question had done things that were globally recognized. Take this image of David Rudisha – the men’s 800 metre world record holder – and the president. In this picture everyone is still smiling, but the president is definitely at the centre of the image. If anything, there are vacant seats upfront that one can imagine were occupied by “more important” people. It’s an image of the centre, congratulating the margin.
So what work do these images do?
I’d like to suggest that there’s something in this imaging about attention and centering. In the image of Zuckerberg – and in the way the image has travelled – we are centering Mark. We are catering to his needs. We are applauding him for doing things that would not otherwise come naturally to him. Everything around this image shows that we are here to make him comfortable. In the image of Rudisha we see the reverse. A person who is supposed to be happy – and honoured – to be where he is. No seat has been provided for him (or the other athletes) despite seats being available – and there’s the power at the centre. All eyes are trained on the president. It is not about what any of the athletes have done, but more about how they have been allowed into State House to meet the president.
I’m worried about this idea of how we cater to others while destroying each other. Especially in this age of the entrepreneurship rhetoric. We keep asking why we haven’t made great things, how can we if we don’t allow each other to be great?
“If this can happen to GADO, who can’t they go after?”
- Patrick Gathara as quoted in No Country for Cartoonists
I’m worried. So we’re going to talk about media freedom again. Now, I understand that, given digital media and the many changing ways news travels it is harder to keep track of what is true or false; what works and what doesn’t. But it is of a worrying level of concern just how good this current government has become at silencing dissent before it has had a chance to voice itself. More worrying is the subtlety with which this is happening. It’s like they have become adept at catching things before they make a ripple.
Or perhaps, controlling any ways in which ripples are formed.
Since the British East African Broadcasting Corporation began in 1929 there have been many, often successful, attempts to control the media. By the time the first president Kenyatta was going into power he quickly nationalized the media. In doing this he ensured he could control what went into and, more importantly, out of the Voice of Kenya. Symbolically he basically controlled the voice of the country. Moi was not much better. Under the 24 years of his rule saw a large number of human rights abuses of which banning critical media was a large part. I use these two examples to explain that, given their influences, I’m very wary that the jubilee government and, particularly, the president, is capable of imagining a different way to approach the media.
And with each happening my concern grows.
Take GADO as an example. After working for 23 years with the nation his contract was cancelled after a ominous “they” reached a decision. Dennis Galava, fired from the nation for writing this editorial, wrote an affidavit outlining how it happened. The affidavit itself reads like something from a novel where the protagonist was doomed from the outset. Formal procedures became cover ups for what was really happening. A section of particular interest reads:
“my questions were not taken well. A panelist offered that he would be more cautious if he were in my shoes. Here I stood, he added, both having upset Kenya’s president and the Aga Khan, and risked the business of the paper and yet I also stood seeking justification rather than groveling for mercy.”
Take note of the language here. The problem shifted from whether or not the article itself was factual or, misrepresented any facts in anyway and became who the article had offended. In offending these people Galava had done something seen as unjustifiable. Worthy of his sacking.
Even as I use offend here I use it with a questions Teju Cole asks:
“..as a writer, I cherish the right to offend, and I support that right in other writers—but what was being excluded in this framing?”
Which is to say I understand that even this freedom to offend exists within certain limitations and ethical boundaries, and I’m still puzzled as to what ethical boundaries were crossed in the editorial. And how badly they must have been crossed for Galava to have just been fired.
And it’s not just mainstream media that has been affected.
Misusing a licenced communication gadget (Section 29 of the Information and communications act) has been used to track bloggers in Kenya since its inception. Of recent interest is Yassin Juma, who was arrested for sharing pictures of KDF soldiers on his blog. Or maybe Nancy Mbindalah who, in 2014, was arrested for writing that a hospital had been disconnected from a water supply, only to be saved by resident’s pleas. Many more exist in this category and have been analysed by Brenda Wambui a year ago here.
But one of the most frustrating parts of all this is when we, who should see what is being done, continue to side with those perpetuating this same thinking. As Macharia Gaitho puts it:
“Neither President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, nor Cord leaders Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, and Moses Wetang’ula are national leaders and patriots. They are simply leaders of ethnic political formations who thrive on mobilising their communities and groupings against others.
They play up the ethnically divisive “tyranny of numbers” and “41 versus 1” stratagems and thereby prime their supporters to hate and demonise other Kenyans as enemies to be isolated and neutralised. Now, when somebody points out the dangers we face approaching the elections under such a dangerous culture, some idiots call for his arrest.”
In this article he was talking about the hashtag #ArrestNdii. This hashtag caught me by surprise in many ways. Surely, given how the state is treating the media, citizens were not also trying to destroy the few dissenting voices left? The only real comfort in this thought is knowing that twitter is not the country, neither is it representative of as large a demographic as we’d like it to be. Still, it is growing and that there is already a lot of control happening there (don’t even get me started on Itumbi and the rest) is bothering.
But none of this is new right? And, since it has been going on since 1929, it shouldbe more important to see how well we’ve done since then. Save for changing the faces, we haven’t. Kenya has dropped from being 75th in 2002 to 100th in 2015 in press freedom. A trend that seems set to continue this year. Uganda, who we were all criticizing for how they handled their recent elections, lies at 97th. Further, anti-media legislation has shown up severally under this regime with a lot passing through the media bill and the most recent attempt stopped by National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi.
So yes, I’m worried. I’m worried that, as Nanjala Nyabola puts it:
“There are many people in this country who don’t understand how important journalism is and the impact that it has on how we see ourselves as a nation and what prospects we imagine are possible for us in the future… what are the threats to journalism today? I think that’s the first one that many people a) don’t see the importance of journalism and b) aren’t scared when they see the threat.”
And, even with all this data available we still claim that the media is independent. Is it really that we aren’t scared, or that we don’t know how to stop it? I don’t know, but I know that I’m worried. And with each happening my concern grows.
Many musicians would rightfully be millionaires if they got paid what they are worth. They should be getting six figure cheques from MCSK every month.
- KAZ 2007
“am[sic] one of the pioneers of youth rap music yet I have not even been paid for close to 3 years now”
- Sokoro, 2010
“Many musicians are not getting their rightful dues out of their intellectual property. MCSK is making so much money from the music but not paying us the way it is supposed to; something that has been going on for a long time.”
- Roba, 2011
“The structures within the music industry in Kenya have failed the musician.”
- Elani, 2015
A quick google search shows a history of musicians demanding for their money from MCSK. If we were to follow their motto “making the world better for those who make living beautiful,” it would appear that the company has been failing for a very long time.
3 questions arise from this situation:
- How has this gone on for so long?
- Why now?
- What does this mean?
How this has gone on always makes its way back to the systemic. After all the MCSK is not the only organization that is meant to be in service to the people with an unfortunate motto. Utumishi kwa wote comes to mind, amidst some others. Even now, as we continue to wonder where this money that should be going to musicians is magically going classic silencing tactics are being used. A town hall already saw Elani being called out for being young and inexperienced (it was, at least, an unpopular opinion). Same town hall showed, if nothing else, there is a gaping hole somewhere that has been there for a while. And it doesn’t look close to being plugged.
And this is not the first time that the MCSK has come under public scrutiny, consider this section from the Business Daily in December 2010:
“The government is set to revoke the license of Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) over its high operational costs compared to the royalties it pays musicians, a move that will deny local artistes millions of shillings in fees.”
Which was followed through by this in July 2011:
“A judge has reinstated Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) mandate to collect royalties on behalf of more than 5,000 local musicians whose earnings were under threat following the revocation society’s licence by the Kenya Copyright Board.“
Both of these paragraphs are the first paragraphs of the articles. What’s put in the lead (term for first paragraph) often dictates what happens in the rest of the piece. It’s interesting to see how both writers here are sympathetic to the MCSK. It is positioned as an organization that is going against so much to ensure that artists get their money. This organization happened to be caught up by high operational costs and a few missing millions. How unfortunate.
It is the unfortunateness of this that continues to keep institutions and people around when they have ignored what they should be doing. This pointing out of the unfortunate thus becomes the problem. It is no one’s fault, and in being no one’s fault, we don’t need to talk about it. Ahmed reminds me that when we talk about something we come up against we come up against the thing we talk about.
And continue to talk about.
Which brings me to why now. It’s important to think about why Elani got heard. At least to the extent that they are heard. Neo Musangi proves useful to this end:
“To call oneself a babi in Kenya is to declare one untouchable. To ask, “Mta’do?” without the arrogance of Kenya’s political class. Without the violence of a country at war with its own. It is to say, “I am telling you this, and I am aware of the risk I take with an articulation of this kind but I am not afraid. Because I have no reason to be afraid”. It is to say, in many ways that even within one’s vulnerability (because there’s an ever-present vulnerability embodied in queerness) one’s body is not available to the violence it attracts if unbabied. Also, it is to say, “You might not like what I am telling you about me right now but you are going to have to listen to me because babiness is listened to in this country”
There is nothing special about this moment in time. Not more that there was when the other artists were speaking. It then proves to be a matter of class that was at play here. Babiness is listened to in this country. This is not said in an attempt to devalue or discredit what is being said. It is to re-ask what has been asked, how many musicians have had their money just disappear? The ones who, as one lady pointed out, weren’t even adequately represented in the town hall?
And let’s not forget what disappeared money means
Disappeared money in this case is another meal, another item of clothing, school fees. Think about what it would feel like if your boss decided to just pay you 20% of your salary this month. For no reason other than no one could be bothered to check.
This is what it means.
Having more money in the pool for musicians opens up the industry in so many ways. They continue to re-invest in their music. This means sound producers, instrumentalists, videographers, songwriters, actors, crew and many others get paid. More money floating around in the music economy means more music, more competition. The quality of the work will go up.
These is what it means.
This is even before we begin to talk about the value of music for the healing it brings. For the information it spreads.
For just being music.
Still, I remain wary. This is not the first time the MCSK has been under the lens. Even as I write this, I wonder if it will be the last. How do we make this happen? We participate. We listen. We send letters. We talk about this. The weekly cycle of rage continues to turn. Every day we’re given something new to hold and consider. With each new round of fuckery we drop the last one. This purposeful act of forgettingness keeps us from holding anyone to account on anything. How about this one? How about we refuse to let go this time?
Notes on Class and Gender Oppression
Watching the Wolf of Wall Street was a chilling experience; not so much for its raunchy quality (or lack thereof) but because of the exultation of greed as something to aspire for. Jordan Belfort is first portrayed as a young Wall Street stock broker, working at a prestigious stock broker firm (Rothschild) where greed and victimization of clients are the rules of thumb. The glazing of eyes, almost blurry with dollar signs, the promise that anything can be achieved if you are willing to do anything, it is almost a rule book on how to be ruthless and succeed at it. Yet as you watch it, you can’t help but feel buffered within Jordan’s “climb”, “successes” and ultimately, “downfall”. It is easy to cheer Jordan as he gets away with misdeed after misdeed even as he revels in a world rife with misogyny, greed and psychopathic behavior that is presented as the model of financial success, and then pity him as he loses his wealth and family to the consequences of his decisions.
It is no wonder that after the film came out, Christina McDowell, the daughter to the real-life Jordan Belfort, whose story and book the film is based on, wrote an open letter to the director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonard DiCaprio, protesting the cultural message that the film sends out to its viewers. While the methods of artistic critique are beyond the scope of this essay, it is true that the film pretends that Jordan’s victims do not exist, and portrays them as distant others who are necessary collateral in the struggle to make it from the bottom. The “bottom” is not a place that needs to be humanized, but a marsh that needs to be gotten out of so as to be able to stay afloat by stepping on the heads of others who remain in the marsh. In a particularly emotional scene where Jordan almost quits his firm to avoid criminal investigation, he describes how one of his employees could barely feed her family when she started working for him, and how she had risen to become a millionaire under his tutelage.
Implicitly, in Jordan’s world, we learn that it is okay to take from one hungry mouth to feed another; and that injustice is an acceptable means to bettering our circumstances in life.
Let’s draw parallels between Jordan’s world and the positivity mantra that the self-help legion in Kenya seeks to promote. The proliferation of the prosperity gospel in our churches has us believing that we need, not to help the poor, but to shame the poor into doing anything to stop being poor. It’s a classic carrot and stick situation – convince me it’s my fault that I am being plagued by hunger, disease, unemployment or famine – and if by some stroke of luck I manage to get out of that situation, I feel no guilt at breaking the backs of other people to maintain whatever class privilege I will have obtained.
In his book, “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, Paulo Freire outlines the interchange of power between the oppressed and the oppressor. His contention is that too often, the oppressed’s idea of liberation is assuming the position of the oppressor and reproducing the oppression that he or she has previously been subjected to.
There’s a certain cognitive dissonance that takes place among most people about the acceptability of the means justifying the ends, such that injustice is well and good as long as it leads to the perceived justice of gaining economic wealth. Capitalism is a system that acts like an aberration of aristocracy, in that being rich and powerful is a goal we should aspire to; and those who are so are untouchable. We reward bad behavior and call it badassery, being a ninja; taking the focus away from the victims to the villains in a sort of triumphant celebration over the yoke of victory. We live in a theatre of charades where poverty is something to be looked down upon.
A friend once asked: “If justice, freedom and democracy are obviously no-brainers and should be the default, why aren’t they as common?” Indeed, why do we preach concepts that we find hard to normalize in our systems? Why is it that we are always “accepting and moving on” as if our true lot in life is to be oppressed? The system has us passively endorsing bad behavior and injustice because there is the implied principle that one day, we will be the ones to get to the top of the food chain and it will be our turn to oppress others. This is the respective entrenchment of internal dominance and internal oppression within the capitalist system. And so we are willing accomplices to a system that impliedly promises to one day flip the tables and have us feeding from its bosom. Of course, this is a fallacy because the way in which capitalism and patriarchy are structured is such that there’s only room at the top for a 1% that feeds off the labour and productivity of the 99%.
In his essay, “Estranged Labour” Karl Marx speaks of the effect of capitalism over the working population. According to Marx, labourers within the capitalist mode of production are slowly alienated from their free and productive nature by being turned into machines for the system. For the most part, labourers have no control over their mode of work and are forced to do rhythmic tasks that require almost-total submission to authority and little exertion of their creative and analytical faculties. This lack of investment into the ultimate value of work leads to the labourer’s loss of control over his productivity, as well as over his/her relationships with other people. Labour, which is supposed to be the expression of a person’s life, becomes a drudgery within which one is imprisoned, and is to be escaped from at all costs. It is in this scramble to be be among the minority that controls production, that work loses its value as a life-activity. Life becomes a means to life.
This is how capitalism oppresses; by restricting our ability to be multifaceted human beings. It limits us to specific components of our labour and ensures that we never quite enjoy the value of our work, turning labour into a means to an end and happiness into a goal that few manage to reach. and capitalism are oppressive systems that are interlinked, both in the way they reproduce internal dominance within those they privilege, and internal oppression among those that the systems oppress.
Intersectionality is a concept in critical theory that describes the interplay between oppressive systems such as sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia, among others; and the fact that one oppressive system cannot be analyzed separately from the other. Intersectionality operates from the premise that humans are multifaceted individuals who may suffer varied forms of oppression to varying degrees, depending on our position in society.
“There’s no such thing as a single issue struggle”.
– Audre Lorde
Women in Kenya have suffered, and continue to suffer oppression at the hands of both (but not exclusively) classism and sexism. According to a survey carried out in 2013, Kenya ranks 130 out of 148 countries in the UN gender inequality index with unsettling statistics on the gender gap in the informal wage sector, high maternal mortality rates and low percentages of women property ownership. Politically, only 13% of women hold legislative seats.
A significant contributing factor (but, by no means the only factor) is the existence of a legal and institutional framework that affects women and their bodies but is severely lacking in terms of gender parity. We therefore find ourselves in a situation where laws on property, succession, health access, sexuality, leadership as well as affirmative action are legislated upon by the very beneficiaries of a patriarchal system of government. The disgraceful statements made by Members of Parliament as they debated the Marriage Bill are only symptomatic of the widespread sexism that permeates legal and social institutions in the country.
The 2010 Constitution, lauded in various quarters for being one of the most progressive in the world, does a good job in addressing gender imbalances and instituting affirmative action to correct existing gender inequalities in economic opportunities and leadership positions. However, the problem with laws on paper that are left to be implemented by people in positions of class and gender privilege is that inevitably, they will either be watered down or ignored .
An advisory opinion submitted to the Supreme Court, seeking guidance on the realization of the 1/3 representation, was the first strike against the constitution’s provisions with the judgment stating, among others, that there was no mandatory obligation resting upon the State to take particular measures, at a particular time, for the realization of the gender equity principle. This, in a country that prides itself on having a legal framework that actively promotes gender equality and participation. And so, while the principles governing these laws and institutions might be the picture of justice and equality, people who run these institutions will find ways of subverting these principles. Institutional memory, where people are unwilling to change the status quo on the basis that things have always worked in a certain way, is also another factor that heavily contributes to the stilted legal and social order that these laws aim to create.
However, the question also comes in: does mere increased representation of women in leadership translate to concrete benefits for women in general? Does it mean, for instance, that the lot of women in Kenya has improved since the creation of 47 new seats for women representatives after the 2013 election? The principle of internal dominance and oppression still holds when a small number of women are admitted into male-dominated decision making systems that are already patriarchal in nature. Almost inevitably, these systems demand that development and justice take a backseat to political gain and fiscal mismanagement; concepts which, again, adversely affect those who experience economic and gender oppression.
In addition, issues that affect women directly are considered in isolation from discussions on mainstream social and economic policies. An instance that demonstrates this is when the Nairobi County Governor slapped the Nairobi Women Representative in front of cameras, an act that played out gender-based violence on a larger, more powerful, and more threatening scale for the women of Kenya. Without a solid reflection on what this spectacle of people in positions of class and political power represented for numerous other women for whom this sort of violence is reproduced every day, the issue was treated dismissively, even within legislative and judicial circles, where power to order societal change resides. Amid the aggressive calls for justice by civil society groups, there was resounding silence from arms of government, with only half-hearted attempts to censure the governor. Instead, our leaders, whose attitudes, for better or worse, are reproduced in society, ridiculed the ordeal and the attendant effort to get justice for victims of violence against women.
This incident and its backlash (or lack thereof) demonstrated how important issues affecting society are consigned to the pigeonhole of “women’s issues” and accordingly ignored as the preserve of “those evil feminists”. It is not enough to increase women’s quota representation in leadership; we need to also carry out gender mainstreaming by effectively increasing how issues affecting women and other oppressed groups are represented in such fora.
The direction, in which we also need to move, is in supporting grassroots organizations, which work daily to realize gender and economic justice, with more concrete legislative and policy changes. It is a shame that county representatives and MPs can afford to fly themselves out of the country and spend billions of shillings of taxpayers’ money while an issue as basic as maternal health care is consigned to First-Lady do-gooder initiatives.
Aspiring to be rich in a country that is slosh full of economic inequality is not how you save yourself; neither is being a woman leader who uses her position in power to propagate the existing institutional greed in public office.
It is important that every person who believes in justice be part of a larger movement to change the system and not sit at the sidelines, laughing because a woman being slapped is just another “African” norm that needs to be preserved. All forms of oppression are connected; and the sooner we use our respective positions of class, gender or even heteronormative privilege to dismantle injustice, the sooner we can create a just world for ourselves. This is how we win.
Nkatha Obungu is a closet idealist who speaks legalese by day and masquerades as a writer by night. She is currently worshipping at the feet of Audre Lorde and Paul Verlaine
It is my belief that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Our lives are made possible by those who birthed us, and those who fought so that people who look like us can live, and we must always remember this.
I was recently asked why I am no longer as vocal as I used to be about issues I am passionate about on my Facebook/Twitter pages. Nowadays, I’ll mostly talk about the music I’m listening to or how I’m feeling, and some have felt that this is shallow compared to what I shared before. I agree – I could continue doing the same, but I will not, at least not for a while, because I am tired. Of saying the same thing. In different words. All the time.
It felt as if I (and many of my allies online) was going to die of exhaustion due to repeating myself to an audience that did not seem to want to learn. I spoke to a columnist I admire about why her column had gone from weekly to fortnightly, and she said “I feel that I am repeating myself. I’m getting tired of saying the same thing over and over again, just about different things.” Conversations online, due to our culture of outrage that has no doubt been fueled by the internet, tend to be in reaction to a stimulus, leaving little time and energy for people who want to create originally to do so. We are left reacting to our nemeses – sexism, racism, corruption – and it feels like there is a force, a group of people who stand to benefit from our busy-bodied reactionary nature. Whoever they are, they need us to stay distracted long enough.
I had been unable to find the best way to frame this until I came across a lecture given by Toni Morrison in 1975 at Portland State University on race, politics and art. It became very clear to me what I had to do after I read the transcript of this lecture, and the lessons were applicable to most, if not all, forms of oppression. Parts of the lecture are in italics, with my annotations interspersed.
More important, accurate scholarship and free, dedicated artists would reveal a singularly important thing: that racism was and is not only a mark, a public mark, of ignorance; it was and is a monumental fraud. Racism was never, ever the issue. Profit and money always was. And all of those quotations from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune, the threat was always jobs, land, or money. And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you must have a reason for despising your victim. Where racism exists as an idea, it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. Its purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. Its hoped-for consequence was to define Black people as reactions to White presence.
This gives me pause. Should we replace the word racism with sexism, homophobia, class prejudice, tribalism or any other form of discrimination we have institutionalized, this still makes sense. It has been proven that attacks on women increase when the men of that society feel that women are becoming more prosperous in relation to them; thus their sex is not the issue, profit and money are. Profit and money equal power – power is the issue, sex is merely a façade. The same applies to class divisions. We keep the poor entangled in their poverty, such that they have little time or strength for anything else. They are unable to awaken to their true power because their poverty is so consuming, they can think of little else. Which is why people will sell their votes for as little as KES 50. Black people serve as a backdrop to white people in such a society; women as a backdrop to men; the poor as a backdrop to the rich, and so on.
Nobody really thought that Black people were inferior. Not Benjamin Franklin, not Mr. Byrd, and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way. They only hoped that Black people would hear coon songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign, or become one. They never thought Black people were lazy—ever. Not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions. And they never, ever thought we were inhuman. You don’t give your children over to the care of people whom you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason that you work or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switchblades. They were only and simply and now interested in acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor. Everybody knows that if the price is high enough, the racist will give you anything you want.
This was like a revelation to me. It is not that the people I was trying to communicate with did not know that gay people were people too; that women and men deserve equal rights; that the poor must have their dignity. They know these things. They just do not want us to believe these things. There is a heavy reliance by purveyors of the status quo on our low self-esteem. They demand that we participate in our own disparagement. Of course gay people are people too – they are birthed by human beings. Of course women are equal human beings, otherwise men would not date/marry them. Of course black people are people too (in fact, the invention of whiteness has been well catalogued, and it was created to retain wealth in certain circles).
It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.
The same can be said of sexism – it keeps women from doing their work – as well as class prejudice, homophobia, tribalism and other strata along which we choose to divide ourselves. It keeps the oppressed on the defensive, forever justifying their humanity, and responding to the aggressions of the oppressor. When someone tweets online that women who are unmarried over thirty are doomed, hours are spent proving otherwise. Tomorrow another idiot comes online and says women who do not cook are not real women. The process is repeated. We end up distracted from our cause, which is usually the purpose of the inanities spewed by those in power.
For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar, and the names of people, not only the number that arrived. And to the artist one can only say, not to be confused, [sigh] not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever; you must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power. And I urge you to be careful. For there is a deadly prison: the prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me.
What is the disease? Greed and the struggle for power. Behind every sexist/homophobic/tribal/racist slight, this is the enemy. Even corruption itself is not a disease, but a symptom of greed and the struggle for power. When we see this, everything changes. We can spend our entire lives fighting acts/statements by fools who exhibit these symptoms. And in the process, it can feel like we have done a lot of work, for we will surely be tired by the end of the day. But we do not have to. This is not the best way. It is not up to us to educate our oppressors. They know exactly what they are doing. So, what can we do?
To avoid the prison of reacting to racism is a problem of the very first order. Where the mind dwells on changing the minds of racists is a very dank place. Where the spirit hangs limp in silk cords of the racial apologists who want soft and delicate treatment for the poor victims is a very dim place. And where the will that you allow to be eroded day by day, day by day, by consistent assaults from racists, then the will just settles into a little tiny heap of sand, and you just have a second-rate existence, jammed with second-hand ideas. Racial ignorance is a prison from which there is no escape because there’re no doors. And there are old, old men, and old, old women running institutions, governments, homes all over the world who need to believe in their racism and need to have the victims of racism concentrate all their creative abilities on them. And they are very easily identified.
They are the petulant ones who call themselves proud, and they are the disdainful ones who call themselves fastidious, and they are the mean-spirited ones who call themselves just. They thrive on the failures of those unlike them; they are the ones who measure their wealth by the desperation of the poor. They are the ones who know personal success only when they can identify deficiencies in other racial and ethnic groups. They are in prisons of their own construction: and their ignorance and their stunted emotional growth consistently boggle the mind.
It is rare that we will succeed in changing the minds of those who oppress us. They hold on so strongly to their false beliefs, and it has been proven that the more we argue with such people and present them with sound logic and facts, the more tightly they hold on to their flawed logic. Yet they manage to wear us down with these constant runarounds while they continue boldly with their erroneous beliefs. This leaves us unable to do our work, while they go forth and infect others with their choice brand of foolishness. As Ms. Morrison says, such people are easy to identify, and our efforts cannot, and must not, be wasted upon them. It is far better to use our efforts where there is hope for substantial change.
We are the moral inhabitants of the globe. And to deny it is to lie in prison. Oh yes, there’s cruelty, and cruelty, because it destroys the perpetuator as well as the victim, is a very mysterious thing. But if you look at the world as one long brutal game between “us” and “them,” then you bump into another mystery. And that’s the mystery of the tree-shaped scar, and the canary that might sing on the crown of a scar. And unless all races and all ages of man have been totally deluded, there seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony—all of which are wholly free, and available to us.
A question was asked to Ms. Morrison on how to eliminate racist rhetoric given white media ownership. She responded as follows:
There were several parts to your question. I think you were asking about methods, how was it possible for Blacks [the Black artist] to exercise any influence or control given the media is controlled by White people. Et cetera et cetera. I think there’s a layer underneath your question of assumption about what the media are and what its influence is. One has a tendency to have some enormous awe for it, as though it were some magic, television, play, or a book review. It really is of no consequence when it comes to doing important work. The media originates nothing; it simply digests what exists. It can enlighten, and it can distort, but it does not initiate and it does not create. The best analogy for that for Black people, I think can be found in music. I was talking to Dr. Harris earlier: Black people’s music is in a class by itself and always has been. There’s nothing like it in the world.
The reason for that is that it was not tampered with by White people. It was not “on the media.” It was not anywhere except where Black people were. And it is one of the art forms in which Black people decided what was good in it, what was the best in it; no one told them. And if you want to be a Black musician now, you have to do what the best have done. And all of the mediocre musicians (Black) were blown off the stage [inaudible] and ridiculed by Black—by other Black musicians. So what surfaced and floated to the top were the giants and the best. And it was done without “the media,” in spite of the control et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. That is true of any art form that is (a) not imitated, (b) it does not seek to justify or explain anything; it talks—artists—the Black artists must do what all the other artists do: talk to each other.
The same applies to all other oppressed groups. The only way to empower ourselves is to initiate. To create. Not to participate in the mindless reactionary cycle that the media (and those in power) so well initiates, be it on corruption, sexism, tribalism, homophobia or any of Kenya’s other ills. We support each other in creation. In building networks. In sustained action. And we listen to each other, and learn from each other. No one can speak for us but us. No one will fight for us but us. Which is why it is fallacious to imagine, for example, that the endless reporting of corruption in the media will somehow lead to its reduction. It won’t – because we are tired. We hear a new story almost each day, and pursue it with fervor, as we did the last, leaving us with little time and energy for follow-up, and most of all, distracted. Which is exactly what oppressors rely on.
Power structures have been built over decades, centuries even, and only sustained, organized efforts can bring them down. Thankfully, modern tools ensure that bringing them down happens much faster than how long it took to build them, but much work is still required. Which is why I will not drain myself online pursuing and discussing scandal after scandal, attempting to teach sexists and homophobes, or lambasting Kenyan leaders. They are counting on that. Instead, I am working to fight the disease at its roots. To teach younger people (for whom there is still some hope) much better than we were taught. To create better structures for the near (and far) future. To support others in their struggles.
This is not to say that there is no space for teaching others. Write your essays. Create your work. Send forth those wise tweets. Just do not waste any of your precious time validating yourself to the oppressor. Instead, speak to empower your fellow oppressed. That is where the room for empowerment lies. And only once we are empowered can we fight these toxic structures.
I have a bad habit when I, sometimes, meet people who are incorrigible racists. I like to leave them that way. I never do anything to change their mind. I want them to stay just that way. Ignorant. And I take great, great personal and private pleasure every time I run up against one. It never occurs to me to behave another way so they will not think X, Y, or Z. I want them to stay just like that. Always.
No street protests in support of KTN, NTV and Citizen TV, who collectively, have served Kenyans with dedication & passion over 25 years?
The human mind is capable of amazing things, one of which is selective amnesia.
In March 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta was declared Kenya’s fourth president, and barring his supporters, no one was happier than Kenyan media houses. One could tell that as they were reporting this victory, most of them were celebrating. It was as if they had also won. What had they won? We do not know. Before this, when asked if they had any questions regarding the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) after foreign media houses had been given the chance to ask, they were quiet. They had nothing to say. All we heard was their deafening silence.
Several journalists then went to take tea with Uhuru Kenyatta at Statehouse following his victory, in what is still seen as the transaction in which the Kenyan media officially agreed to sell out the Kenyan people. After that, we experienced a deluge of songs of praise by the media about the Jubilee coalition. They could do no wrong. The role of Official Opposition, People’s Watchdog and Informant of the People was taken over by Kenyans online, especially since the actual Official Opposition, CORD, was too busy making a fool of itself.
In 2014, digital migration in Kenya became imminent, even though it had gone over the 2012 deadline that former President Mwai Kibaki had set. Since then, we have experienced drama akin to that of a Mexican telenovela. Recently, the four TV stations (NTV, KTN, Citizen TV and QTV) argued that their channels were switched off by the Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK) after they raided their transmitters in Limuru and switched off their analogue equipment. The CAK, on the other hand, argues that the three stations turned off their signal in protest (this sounds more plausible, since they could have continued to air on digital channels, but chose not to) and aired inaccurate messages in breach of their licensing (i.e. the claims they are making against the government, as well as competitors such as GoTV and Star Times).
Before this, the rebel media houses (NMG, SMG and RMS) which own NTV and QTV, KTN and Citizen TV respectively, in a recent message airing in place of their regular programming, asked their viewers not to buy decoders from GoTV and Star Times, two pay TV distributors, so as to watch their channels. This, of course, is anti-competitive behavior and is against the law, which apparently only they should apply selectively. It led to the withdrawal of the self-provisioning license they had been issued, which was then reinstated pending a fine for bad behavior. They have claimed that despite the Supreme Court ruling to have digital licenses issued, the CA has not complied and thus forced a shutdown of signals. They also said that 90% of Kenyans were in a TV blackout, which is strange, given that only 2,650,200 households (30% of Kenyan households) own TV sets as per the last population and housing census in 2009.
Is it not a twist of poetic justice, then, that the media expects screams of protest in its favour, but all it hears is silence? How can they forget how they let us down in our time of need, yet they ask us to fight for them? These are the same journalists who claimed that in the protest against the primary school land grabbing in Lang’ata, activists “used” children to get what they wanted. Yet they wonder why no activists are on the street fighting for them. All of a sudden, they have important things to say. Very important things, in fact. About Tony Blair’s dalliance with our government. About corruption. About murder.
I have seen tweets where certain journalists suggest that Uhuru and his juggernaut must remember that the media played a big role in their election, and can be their undoing in the next election. That the media delivered the Jubilee Coalition a win, yet the government is clamping down on free speech. Was there a silent agreement? Deliver us a win in the election and you will be safe? I wonder.
This to me is evidence that these media houses are being hypocritical when they frame this war with the government as an attack on free speech and freedom of the press. Democracy – government of the people by the people for the people – and freedom go hand in hand. People can only govern themselves if they have information, and a wide angle view of situations. The media then serves as an important source of information in a democracy. We rely on the media to tell us what is going on in our society, as we cannot possibly experience everything. We rely on them to provide the context of the situation, so that we may know how to react. We rely on them to decide what matters and how it gets interpreted. We rely on them to check the government’s power. Freedom of the press is not an end in itself, it exists to make sure that a democracy is functional. Watching this wrangle, it is clear that it is nothing but a fight over market dominance and the status quo. The media houses in question speak of freedom of press as an end in itself, and this should show Kenyans that this is not being done for them, but for the balance sheet.
This is not to say that the claims being made by the three media houses are false, and that there was no impropriety involved in the awarding of the license to Pan Africa Network Group (PANG). The three media houses may very well be right about this. In fact, based on Kenya’s history, it is extremely likely that if investigated, there is another Chickengate scandal lying in wait in the digital migration process. This is to say that when it comes to keeping the government open and accountable, as any democratic government should aim to be, these media houses have largely failed.
The three media houses remind me of the boy who cried wolf. Kenyans have long protested for their freedom of speech, which goes hand in hand with freedom of press, but our counterparts in the media have spurned us time and time again, choosing only to turn to us when in dire need. Where were they when we needed them to cover the Security Bill/Act? When we needed them to stand by bloggers and internet users against unnecessary regulation and persecution by government? We have protested when it was necessary, when our freedoms were actually under attack, but not this time. The media is supposed to be an intermediary between the government and the people. What are the people to do when this intermediary publicly takes side with the government one day, and then asks us to rally for it the next? Can they really be trusted?
I invite these three media houses for a seat at our table. How does it feel to shout into the abyss, and hear nothing but the sound of silence? To be screwed over by the government? Were you not the ones who had “accept and move on” on replay for days on end after the 2013 elections? We suggest you do the same.
“What’s in a name? that which we
call a rose
by any other name would smell
– Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.
It’s something else when we begin to imagine the amount of damage that has been done to humankind in defense of names. Names are an extension of authority. Saying a name is to bring, for a lingering moment, the presence of the person named. And, if this presence is invoked then this presence must be defended.
“Halt! In the name of the king!” is one such statement. If it were not for the king’s name one could easily ask the question “why?” and “in the name of the king” is the answer.
Names are answers.
Think about the question that comes along with entitlement “Do you know who I am?” It asks the listener to think about the name of the person, and all that name stands for. When a name is invoked and not recognized, it is as if a wound has been inflicted. A perceived authority shattered.
There are two ways to handle this rejection. The first is to accept that no such authority exists, and the second is to deny the rejection.
“We are the ones who make the laws in the government, we can break them.”
– Alfred Keter
“Has activism gone too far?”
– Citizen TV
It is with this knowledge that I question our media’s approach to names. When Larry Madowo announced that he was having Keter on the news, what name was being given credence to speak? What does it mean to have a media that constantly values the voices of the perpetrators of violence over the voices of its victims? What did Alfred Keter have to say? Hadn’t we already heard what he had to say? Hadn’t we heard him loud and clear?
(but give him a chance to clear his name…)
What names do we allow that chance, though? When you’re giving powerful perpetrators of violence a stage to defend themselves against claims from victims of said violence, are you working? This is the same media that drags the names of victims of said violence from same powerful people through the ground. That slut-shamed Mercy Keino after her brutal murder. That refused to cover #kasaraniconcentrationcamp and runs all forms of islamophobic, sexist, racist messages.
Something broke somewhere.
Inside many homes victims sit, watching the person who threatened them explain everything away. Already, they know that no one wants to know what happened. Knowing that even the people who tell stories would quickly spin away any sudden disappearance. How can they compete? How can they challenge this?
Yet every time there is a media gagging bill, the media hits the streets claiming they have a right to speak. To say what? If the plan is to already say government approved words or have government approved names, then why demand freedom?
Even as I use the word freedom Gukira reminds me that it is a flawed concept. The larger idea is to have a shareable world. To imagine that there is space for all of us, for all our names. Instead I remember the media giving all the airtime to Tony Mochama and completely shutting out Shailja Patel in the claim of getting “the other side of the story.”
Thus, violence continues to propagate itself. Stuck with a media that is centered around reiterating reporting and forgetting, we are lured into that cycle. The violence, being always presented to us as novel, always appears to be novel. Despite the attempts of many we are, predominantly, presented with new, unanalysed, information every day.
And this is how we find ourselves here, barely a month into the year and already a Member of Parliament is caught on camera talking about how “he fucks stupid, innocent people.” He literally insulted every single citizen of the country.
The novel case for last week was Weston Hotel. Again, the media focused on Ruto. Let us hear what he has to say about these allegations of his hotel being on a school kids playground. Willfully obtuse, the media focused everything else except the matter at hand.
Last year all major papers ran a ‘Moi at 90’ piece. Articles were dedicated to clearing the name of the man who commissioned the Nyayo torture chambers.
“Are we just going to sit around and wait to be blown to bits by terrorists?”
“Every little two-bit Somali has a big dream – to blow us up, knock down our buildings and slaughter our children.”
This is something that the media here has been doing for a while. It is not new. It is not different. It doesn’t matter if the faces have changed. It’s the same game. Repeatedly, the media in Kenya has shown that its primary role is to defend the ‘good names’ of some people at any cost.
We do not have the names of the 1300+ people who died during the Post Election Violence anywhere. We do not have the names of the witnesses who have been disappeared in Kenya’s case at the ICC. We do not have the names of the girl from Lang’ata primary who has been hospitalized twice because she was teargassed by the police. We do not have the name of the child who was born in #Kasaraniconcentrationcamp, umbilical cord snapped by their aunts’ fingernails. We do not have the names of the street merchants whose stalls were torn down at 3AM in the morning. Nor of the people who had a house collapse on them because of dodgy construction.
Instead we have been given private developers, dark forces, faceless grabbers and other monsters that we chase in a bid to protect the names that we do know, but whisper. The names that we know can be attached to various crimes but are afraid to say out loud.
We need our names. Give us our names.
This is what terrifies me: one day, we’ll wake up and find that all of the stories are gone.
Let me explain.
I find myself thinking more about endings as I grow older. Of late, I’ve been thinking specifically about what comes after the end. Not in the sense of what comes in the afterlife – although I have been compiling a list of questions to ask God when I meet him/her/them – but more, what do we leave behind us when we are gone? Some people might call this a legacy. I’m going to call it the stories we leave behind.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed something else about growing older, which is that the older people in my life become more expressive, more open to sharing the stories of their childhood and their past as both of us grow older. My maternal grandmother, for instance, did not speak with us much when we were children. When she did, she was usually shouting at us for doing something that we shouldn’t be doing (which happened often). But something really cool seems to have happened since I turned 20 – nowadays she wants to tell me about her life. Like, really tell me. Not in a way that’s an attempt at giving me advice, but as if she’s honestly sharing her own past. I’d like to hope that it is therapeutic for her to let out some of these thoughts, memories and feelings.
The last time we talked, she told me about what it was like to live during the State of Emergency in colonial Kenya. She described to me the way that young boys, their only crime being the fact that they were Kikuyu, would be rounded up, tortured, taken to prison; killed. At this point in the story, my young cousin, who’s about seven years old, was playing close to her feet. My Cucu pointed to him and said: They would kill boys as young as him.
I grew up treating history as something that was far removed from me: notes we read off of Social Studies textbooks for the sake of memorizing years, passing exams. But I’ll be honest, I don’t think I ever “felt” the impact of history. I mean, sure, at the back of my mind I knew that the story of colonialism featured in my life history in the sense that I am a descendant of people who survived it, but the actual effect felt so distant from my existence in Nairobi. I used to think: Yes, colonialism happened, but it’s all in the past now. We’re all right. We got independence. We survived it.
My grandparents survived colonialism. They lived to have children and grandchildren. They were strong and hardworking people who believed in God and in the promise of education. But surviving does not mean that everything that happened is finished and done, it just means that we pick the pieces together and we learn to carry all of the pain, the fear and the memories in a way that’s dignified and socially acceptable.
Think about it: when you fall in love and lose that love, it changes you as a person. You can’t go back to who you were before, because you now carry the lessons gained from the relationship. So, too, we cannot just be done with colonialism. We continue to carry it within ourselves, in the systems of government and of law of our nation, in the languages that we use to communicate with one another, in the fact that our country is shaped like an uneven swimming costume.
Warsan Shire writes about maps and bodies and pain. In this one poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” she talks about receiving the news that someone burnt down her aunt’s house. She ends the poem with these words: “later that night/ I held an atlas on my lap/ ran my hands across the whole world/ and whispered: where does it hurt?/ it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere”.
When I first read this poem, I thought that she was just talking about the fact that there’s so much pain and conflict in this world. But when I read it again a few weeks ago, I saw something different. I thought of the very idea of the map, the very existence of countries that are shaped a certain way, the fact that boundaries do not just come into being, they are negotiated and renegotiated with the use of force. And the names of countries and continents– Chimamanda Adichie says this: “I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”
Pain is embedded in the geography of our land and of our identity. So when Warsan Shire says “everywhere/everywhere/everywhere”, it could be that she’s talking not just about the geographical existence of pain, but to the fact that it has been there in the past, in the present and in the future, and to the fact that it’s contained in all of us.
I am Kenyan. I am African. I claim my heritage with a sense of pride and of passion because to me, being Kenyan does not just mean simply existing in the boundaries of this state: it means identifying with a certain story, a certain set of stories (not everyone feels this way, and that is completely valid). But in claiming my Kenyanness and Africanness in an article I’ve written in English, I need to also acknowledge that there’s a history behind how all of these things came to be a part of me.
At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a friend, and I were looking at the different exhibits and she pointed out something that I’ve never really paid attention to: when you walk in a museum, there are those pieces of art that have a name attached to them “Art by Rembrandt Harmesz. van Rijn”, and there are those that are simply presented as “Art by the Congo People”. So, too, “1,200 people have died of Ebola in Africa” versus “Keith Brantly” and “Sarah Writebol”.
Chimamanda Adichie, again, puts it aptly: “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
There’s a moment in Grey’s Anatomy when Christina Yang is speaking about her ex fiance Burke, and she says that when she was with him, he took so many pieces of her that she lost herself. Violence and wars, even when they are finished, take away pieces of us. And this is why I am so terrified about us losing our stories: when history stops being something that we can relate with, when it becomes reduced to a thing that happened many years ago that we read about briefly in our text books so that we can pass our exams, then we lose pieces of ourselves. And one of the things that we lose is the ability to know where it is that our pain and our beauty come from.
This is my fear: that one day, we will have lost so many pieces of ourselves that there will be nothing left.
But maybe that’s not how it ends. Maybe, before that day comes, we speak with one another. We ask for the stories. Like, really ask, not for exams, not so we can win debates, not so we can know how to make money, but so that we can understand each other and our world better. We ask the people around us, “Hey, tell me a story?”. Our friends, loved ones, grandparents, great grandparents, even and especially those people with whom we disagree most vehemently.
I think you could call this hope: this thinking that maybe, asking for and sharing our stories could be the thing that saves us.
This essay was written before the occurrence of the Mpeketoni Attack. We as Brainstorm extend our deepest condolences to all those affected by the attack, and to Kenya as a whole.
Outrage Pornography: Memes, news articles, TV segments, email forwards, or other forms of media that are designed to invoke outrage. This is especially true for political-related topics. Viewers of outrage porn often become addicted and spend many hours per day trying to seek new outrage highs.
Many Kenyan citizens of the internet seem to constantly be on the lookout for things to be outraged by. We are professionally furious. Media outlets, which are in it for the pageviews, are only too eager to give it to us. Outrage sells. We live in an attention economy where eyeballs on articles are the main currency online. Nothing is easier than putting up a post that will shock people, make them feel sad/disgusted/pray for whomever is concerned then share it on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
On Friday 6th June, I was at NTV studios to comment on Vera Sidika’s skin lightening and lifestyle, as well as the campus diva, Catherine Aluoch. As Murphy’s Law would have it, my microphone and camera both failed, and the only thing I managed to get out was that “Society has been forced to look at itself in the mirror” before I got tuned out. What I did not get to say was that I feel that we are great fans of outrage porn – addicted to feeling morally superior and righteously indignant – and that we are very hypocritical.
At the heart of the criticism directed towards both was a sense of both being right, and wronged. Catherine Aluoch spoke on being a “kept woman” – maintained by old men (conflated with married men, as if old men are definitely married, and vice versa) in exchange for sexual favours. She is a student at the University of Nairobi’s Medical School, and she lives in a large three-bedroomed apartment in an upmarket area – a feat apparently unachievable by any other means.
Many Kenyan commenters felt that it was wrong for this girl to live this way – the men were married, and old enough to be her father. Her lack of shame also grated many – it was shocking that she could show her face on live television and admit to her using men for their money, and not caring about their marital status. People also wondered how/why such a smart girl (she could not have made it into medical school if she were daft, apparently) would be a “gold digger”. Vera Sidika, on the other hand, has spoken of her rich Nigerian boyfriend who “treats her like a queen”, buys her gifts and affords her a fine life. Even then, she says, she still makes her own money and invests it wisely. This also seems to grate many Kenyans.
However, what happens when we set our sense of moral superiority aside and revisit the situation? We see a man expressing interest in a woman because of her body, and a woman expressing interest in a man because of his money. Why are we seemingly okay with the men in question (I saw very few comments shaming the man) but angry about the women? Is it that biological determinism trumps economics? It is fallacious to say that “men are predisposed to such behavior” since we know that we are a product of both our genetics and our surroundings. We have learned to be this way. Why are men forgiven for wanting women based on a single characteristic (their bodies) while women are maligned for wanting men for their money? Why is there a word for women who only want men for their money (gold-digger), but no word for rich men who only want women for their bodies/beauty?
When it comes to the issue of extra-marital affairs, it is extremely hypocritical of us to act shocked and offended by this young woman, yet this is the very same society where we have advertisements running on TV asking us to use condoms in our extra marital affairs, since the famous Jimmy Gathu advertisements asking us to “wacha mpango wa kando” clearly did not work. The rate of HIV/AIDS infections among married people is the highest in the country, so pray do tell, what makes us morally superior to Catherine? Let us remember that she is not the one in a covenant of marriage, the man is, so I wonder why she is the one we are outraged at.
When it comes to criticism on gold digging (regardless of marital status), we have to remember the roots of the marriage institution: marriage was, and in some parts of the world still is, about the exchange of property and power between two men (the father of the bride and the father of the groom). The women are the chattels, and in exchange, the father of the bride receives gifts, sometimes in form of dowry. Marriage as an institution was created solely to allow wealth to pass directly outside the patriarch’s lineage. Marriage for love is a relatively new concept. We still view women largely as chattels, so it may be argued that gold diggers are doing relationships/marriage right: they are merely playing the system, which is slightly more progressive but still outdated at its core, to their advantage.
We are still telling women that finding good men who can take care of them should be their top priority. Why are we angry when these women listen? We sneer at the idea of women who provide for themselves, and fault them for being “too independent” and looking for companions out of a desire to be with someone rather than need. Is it so hard to do away with the notion that women should rely on men? In our rush to shame people and feel superior to them, can we please pick one thing to be outraged about? Is it the fact that women are becoming more independent, or the fact that some are openly relying on men for their financial security? We can’t have it both ways.
Vera Sidika was also criticized for “bleaching her skin”, though she later informed us that it was skin lightening, not bleaching. She was accused of having low self-esteem, having a colonial mindset, not appreciating her black beauty among many other things. There is more to skin bleaching than self-hate/low self-esteem, this paper by Dr. Christopher A.D. Charles shows that. Humans are extremely complex, there cannot possibly be a one size fits all explanation as to why (black) people bleach.
Vera spoke of having done it to improve her business, seeing as her body is her business. She reports having been able to get more business and charge more money, and people all over have been telling her how great she looks. She even has people cursing at her on public fora, then messaging her privately to ask her how she did it since they would like to do it too. To make matters worse, many people online were taken aback by her openness on the matter, since they expected her to be ashamed, or to lie about it.
The idea of beauty in many countries has been conflated with whiteness. White is beautiful. Black, not so much. This image is both overtly and covertly reinforced by the media we consume, and can be seen in the endless “lightskin-darkskin” wars on Kenyan Twitter. Why, then, are we outraged when people succumb to our immense pressure to be “lightskins” and lighten themselves? Is this when it suddenly becomes a joke and we shake our heads and say that they should have known better?
Why is it that Vera’s earnings power has increased, rather than decreased? If it were true that we hate the act of skin bleaching, her earnings power would have reduced. She would not have made money off it, and perhaps others would not do it after learning from her experience, but that is not the case. It is so easy to label this low self-esteem or colonial mentality. However, we are part of a society that has, and continues to offer more privilege to whiteness.
Why do we penalize people like Vera for merely acknowledging this and acting accordingly? Why do we take away her agency, with which she decided that she wanted to change her reality, and instead make her an object which should “know better”? Why is it that only the bleaching of women is reported, making it a gendered issue, yet it is known that some men participate in the process as well? Why do we ignore the part we play in laughing at dark women and preferring light ones? Instead of asking women why they bleach, why can’t we ask the men who proudly declare so why they “prefer light women”? We make these women out to be crazy and naïve, and as having betrayed their culture, yet we continue to project images of female beauty everywhere we turn that look nothing like Kenyan/most African women. Who is the fool here?
This cycle of outrage needs to end. Outrage pornography is an outlet for us, it allows us to feel smug/good about ourselves, while making others look and feel bad. There is a large element of self-gratification in it – the outrage is not for others, it is for us. We feel good after having lashed out. We feel that we have done our bit, and can move on to the next one. We are brought together by a common cause – righteous indignation – and it feels great. Don’t get me wrong, there are many times when outrage is justifiable, but not in such times. Outrage at non-performing leaders is perfectly fine, in fact, it should be a must. However, outrage at people we have created and elevated to glory is not, so why are we outraged?
When Kenyan society looks at Vera Sidika and Catherine Aluoch it hates what it sees, and thinks it is ugly, yet what it sees is itself.